NSA indirectly responsible for new breed of anti-spying smartphones, apps and devices

by: Gary SimsOctober 11, 2013

NSA BuildingWhen it comes to privacy it seems that the world is divided into two distinct camps. The “I don’t care, I have nothing to hide” camp and the “Privacy is a basic human right” lobby. Since the revelations of Edward Snowden about the NSA’s spying antics, the ethical, political and technical questions around state-sponsored mass wire-tapping and surveillance has come (again) to the forefront. Like privacy there seems to be two camps. The “I am not doing anything illegal, I don’t care” camp and the “Government shouldn’t spy on its citizens” lobby.

Each one of us belongs to one of the groups mentioned above, even not having a firm opinion or stance places us in one of the camps by default! The moral and social aspects of state-level spying will be debated for years to come, but an interesting side-effect of the NSA’s actions is that new business is being created specifically to protect people against spies.

There are already some established services that to help protect users from unwanted snooping, these include things like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and anonymous browsing services like Tor. These services can often be used from a smartphone as well as a desktop computer, in fact Android’s VPN capabilities are quite mature and reliable.

Edward Snowden was using an encrypted email service called Lavabit so that he could communicate without the NSA knowing what he was saying. However Lavabit’s CEO decided to shutdown the service when the NSA handed him a subpoena demanding copies of Snowden’s unencrypted emails. And here is the first change to the way people are starting to use the Internet – not via services in the USA or the European Union. It is an unfortunate reality that many of the major online services that we all use are based in the USA: Google, Yahoo!, Bing and so on. There are alternatives including emails services like Countermail and NeoMailbox that offer encrypted email outside of the USA. NeoMailbox is actually based in Switzerland, a country that isn’t part of the EU and has a history of keeping secrets for its clients!

Beyond browsing and email there are also other new devices and services appearing. A few weeks ago QSAlpha launched a new Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for its cipherphone – the Quasar IV. The Quasar IV uses QSAlpha’s new Quatrix encryption technology to help users protect their entire digital world including phone calls, email, mobile apps, SMS, and cloud storage. Although the crowdfunding didn’t go well, only about $67,000 was raised of the $3.2 million target, the phone has now gone into production thanks to an anonymous OEM which Steve Chao, the founder and CEO of QSAlpha, is calling “one of the world’s largest consumer electronics OEM manufacturers.”

In the mean time QSAlpha has developed an SD card which it is calling the QuaWorks Activator to bring cipherphone technology to anyone with an Android smartphone with a memory card slot. By inserting the card into any Android 4.0+ smartphone, owners will get access to the QuaWorks ecosystem including encrypted email, encrypted SMS messages (between two QuaWorks users) and a fully encrypted VoIP service, again between two different QuaWorks users.

The move to combat the NSA’s pervasive actions isn’t only limited to those building Ninja type phones, even eccentric millionaires are on the case.

john mcafee Mercury News

It will of course be used for nefarious purposes, just like the telephone is -- John McAfee

Recently, John McAfee the founder of McAfee Anti-virus, announced at a combined technology conference and music festival, that he plans to build a device that can thwart the NSA’s surveillance techniques. The pocket-size gadget, which has been dubbed “Decentral” and will be compatible with both Android and iOS, creates decentralized, moving local networks that can’t be hacked by the NSA.

“There will be no way (for the government) to tell who you are or where you are,” said McAfee. If worried that the USA government might try to ban the device he said, “I’ll sell it in England, Japan, the Third World. This is coming and cannot be stopped.”

Paying for privacy

Although some of the services mentioned here are free, the majority of them cost money. A good VPN service costs anywhere from $5 upwards per month. The Quasar IV costs $785 to buy and McAfee’s currently non-existent device is purported to cost around $100. The question is, are people willing to pay for anti-spying technology?

The lack of funding for the Quasar IV would imply that people aren’t ready to part with their cash to stop the NSA from spying on them. Maybe there is an assumption, possibly a naive one, that the technology used for communications – including Android – should be secure to start with and so consumers aren’t ready to spend extra money making their smartphones more secure. Maybe the extra effort and perceived technical challenges in making smartphones secure is too much, or maybe there is a lethargy among consumers who ultimately realize that if the NSA turns up with a subpoena at your service provider then the government will get hold of your data. Maybe now only privately implemented security – where the keys are held only the by individual, can resist the government’s spies.

What do you think? Would you buy McAfee’s device or buy something like the QuaWorks Activator?

  • Tuấn Ankh

    I wouldn’t pay for that kind of service.

    I’m on the side of “Government shouldn’t spy on its citizens” though. After reading all this, I kind feel like they’re trying to make business together. The NSA eats up Americans’ taxes to do craps, then people have to pay another company in order to get some privacy that was taken away by the NSA which used their money? I think I’m paranoid, lol.

    • APai

      paying for these services also raises an automatic red flag of “what if” the said services are actually secret fronts for NSA :P

      a lot of people are really nervous about this whole spying thing, but do not know what is next, or how this could be sorted out. if one voices against such spying, then the government (or anyone in favor of spying) would accuse anyone opposing as having something to hide or are doing something illegal.

      which really brings us to the point which the government should clarify – do they think everyone is a potential target ? are we all “potential” terrorists ? are we are living in a huge invisible panopticon where even the government personnel too are the suspects ?

      • K.

        If you want to have an anonymous account, it would be stupid to give out your real identity and pay with a credit card or paypal. That is why these services accept bitcoins.

  • APai

    the government spying in nothing new. of course, its the duty of the government to see that nothing wrong goes on. we have subversive elements and the generally evil kind.

    but how much of a threat are they that warrants blanket surveillance ? such powers were non existent before the tech revolution. also, such spying also leads to a number of other problems. concentrating powers to a few individuals who could also err is a dangerous thing.

    democracies elect representatives – true. however, it does not mean blanket consent to these “representatives” or that they could form a cabal to look after their own interests or other interest groups who would help them profit with their power (businesses).

    so snowden in effect has done exactly what he was planning to do without revealing too much. we are talking about such wanton spying on EVERY single individual around the world. is it really needed ? NO.

    • Balraj

      Nobody cares about our opinion
      It’s been like this from generations I think

  • MasterMuffin

    I don’t care, but it’s morally wrong

    • Luka Mlinar

      Same here.

    • Balraj

      You don’t care about something that you feel is wrong?
      Nice lol

      • MasterMuffin

        Well you can put it that way too

      • lil bit

        He is from Finland, born immune to government crap. I’m part Scandinavian and have some of the same immunity. No fucks were given on the days we were born.,

  • joedoe47

    Well there is security by service and security as a software. I think pursuing security via a service is too gimmicky. if you can make software that is on par, at least, with those that are trying to steal your stuff; then you shouldn’t need a phone from McAfee or QuaWorks.

  • Lil bit

    I’m on the side that says “I’m just a regular guy who occasionally smoke weed and whatever but I have nothing to hide”. If NSA or the Chinese govnt waste time spying on me then they need to get laid and get a life. Just hope it isn’t affecting my data plan or draining my battery.

  • dontflinch

    i would pay extra for a small android tablet built without gps. i would strongly prefer a hardware level assurance of no location tracking.

  • Brian Beard

    People have been saying it for years and I’ve been saying it since I was in the 5th grade, America is the New Roman Empire. It’s just a matter of time till we the people revolt against our government for all the corruption and scumbag self-serving, self-paying, gold digging politicians that are supposed to work for the people and not themselves. The government shuts down but politicians still get payed WTF!!! that’s not a real gov. shut down, they failed their job, the people they supposedly represent and the country as a whole.

    In short I’ll pay and I do pay now, John McAfee let’s pick up the pace I’m ready to buy!

  • rabidhunter

    My thoughts

  • Dave Weinstein

    I think that the lack of interest in the Quasar IV is more about people not willing to pre-buy an $800 device, sight unseen. Their SD card solution has a better chance of success.

    McAfee is a bit of a wildcard, we’ll see if he actually delivers anything.

    Regardless, a secure and private communications solution will protect not only against abuses of government, but from commercial abuses from network providers and media companies as well.

  • Brendon Brown

    Am I the only person who is in both groups ? I haven’t broken the law and am not planning to but its still wrong that they know us better than ourselves :I

  • a1qkhan

    Yes, the spying has been going on for a
    while, but spying on the people you’re (government) supposedly protecting is a contradiction.
    Saying it’s for ‘our own good’, means the government is playing us for fools.
    My question is; if (more likely when) the government decides spying our communications
    isn’t enough, what happens next?

  • Howard Z

    The nsa seems to have taken on a post-911 mission to covertly obtain a copy of every communication occurring on the planet. This will extend to extra terrestrial beings – if they exist.
    The technology already exists and every communication between us citizens are already being intercepted and stored in huge data warehouses. The only question is when this information will be abused in the future to imprison and execute those whose thoughts and politics are not desired by the ruling oligarchy.

    It is time to reread the classic book “1984”.

    As people realize everything is being recorded forever, they will stop revealing their opinions. People will become paranoid and wonder if the manufacturer of every tv, car, phone, cell phone, gps, every electronic device – if the manufacturer has been served a top secret court order to embed surveillance capabilities for the nsa.

    The Internet probably will not die, but all human expression, creativity, and innovation will as people learn to stop revealing anything more than is absolutely necessary least it be misconstrued in the future to validate false government accusations.